How Bat­man, Storm and Harry Pot­ter can cure kid pho­bias and anx­i­ety

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Watch­ing chil­dren whizzing around the house with a cape flap­ping be­hind them or dressed in an all-in-one Ly­cra out­fit as they try to save the world, is a pretty typ­i­cal sight for most par­ents. Su­per­heroes have a spe­cial place in the hearts of young­sters and even when they grow up some can’t let go of their fan­tasy fig­ures. Block­buster su­per­hero films con­tinue to take mil­lions at the box of­fice, fans flock to con­ven­tions and even Dubai has a hugely an­tic­i­pated Marvel Su­per­heroes Theme Park un­der con­struc­tion.

Many look up to su­per­heroes as they fight evil and stand for good. As a kid, pre­tend­ing to be a su­per­hero can make you feel fear­less, out of the or­di­nary and ul­ti­mately just plain good as you help peo­ple in need. Who doesn’t want to be an adored hero?

With­out even re­al­is­ing it, act­ing as a su­per­hero can help kids de­velop su­per­pow­ers of their own to help them cope with the chal­lenges of life. Psy­chol­o­gist and psy­chother­a­pist Francesca Moresi, man­ag­ing direc­tor at The Am­brose Clinic in Knights­bridge, Lon­don (susieam­brose­, be­lieves that su­per­heroes can give kids fan­tas­tic guid­ance. ‘They can have a good in­flu­ence on chil­dren and teach them to sup­port oth­ers or al­low them to find their strengths, de­velop morals, and gen­eros­ity,’ she ex­plains. ‘Iden­ti­fy­ing with su­per­heroes helps chil­dren to find the courage to deal with the real sit­u­a­tions in their life. Su­per­heroes are pro­tec­tors who fight against vil­lains and the di­vi­sion be­tween the two is strong and clear. There­fore kids learn to dis­tin­guish what is good and what is bad and, iden­ti­fy­ing with the hero, they can dis­cover their val­ues.’

Francesca says the char­ac­ters al­low kids to be dar­ing and ex­press the braver parts of their per­son­al­i­ties while at the same time ac­knowl­edg­ing their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and lim­its. Su­per­heroes might be coura­geous, but they cer­tainly aren’t per­fect and they all have their own prob­lems. ‘This is very im­por­tant be­cause it is what al­lows kids to stay grounded with­out get­ting lost in an imag­i­nary world,’ she ex­plains.

‘Iden­ti­fy­ing with th­ese char­ac­ters be­comes help­ful for cop­ing with re­al­ity and ac­cept­ing it comes with its flaws.’

In fact, it seems that su­per­heroes aren’t just called on to pro­tect gal­ax­ies and fight the bad guys – they’re now be­ing used to help chil­dren and adults with their prob­lems right here on planet Earth.

Dr Jan­ina Scar­let is a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist in the US and is one of many who uses Su­per­hero Ther­apy in her teach­ings and with her clients (su­per­hero-ther­ ‘I use su­per­heroes and char­ac­ters from science fic­tion and fan­tasy and other ‘geek’ cul­ture me­dia in ev­i­dence-based ther­a­pies such as cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy (CBT) and ac­cep­tance and com­mit­ment ther­apy (ACT),’ Dr Scar­let ex­plains.

‘Su­per­hero Ther­apy uses ex­am­ples of th­ese char­ac­ters to pro­mote pos­i­tive changes in pa­tients with anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion, post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD) and other dis­or­ders.’

Chil­dren, as well as many adults, of­ten have a hard time talk­ing about and un­der­stand­ing their own feel­ings but Dr Scar­let says that be­ing able to re­late to a su­per­hero, such as Bat­man, can show chil­dren that they’re not alone in their strug­gle and can mo­ti­vate them to face their

Su­per­heroes HELP CHIL­DREN find the courage to deal with the REAL sit­u­a­tions in their lives. They learn to dis­tin­guish what is GOOD and BAD and dis­cover their VAL­UES

Su­per­heroes stand for more than just wear­ing PANTS on the out­side of tights. They rep­re­sent JUS­TICE and IN­TEGRITY – they DE­FEND the in­no­cent and face their enemies even with the ODDS against them

fears and make a pos­i­tive change. By ask­ing a sim­ple ques­tion such as “what would Bat­man do in this sit­u­a­tion?”, chil­dren can po­ten­tially be in­spired to make a big dif­fer­ence.

‘When I’ve worked with chil­dren in the past, we’ve some­times worn su­per­hero cos­tumes when do­ing ex­po­sures as part of ther­apy,’ Dr Scar­let says. ‘Ex­po­sure refers to fac­ing some­one’s fear. For ex­am­ple, if a child has school anx­i­ety, a likely ex­po­sure would be to go to school. Some­times wear­ing a su­per­hero out­fit or even hav­ing a su­per­hero sym­bol to re­mind the child that they are coura­geous, just like their favourite su­per­hero, can make a big dif­fer­ence in that child’s par­tic­i­pa­tion and will­ing­ness to face their fear.’

Be­ing young can seem like a pow­er­less time, and su­per­heroes stand for more than just wear­ing pants on the out­side of tights for kids. They rep­re­sent jus­tice and in­tegrity; they de­fend the in­no­cent and face their enemies even when the odds are stacked against them be­cause it’s the right thing to do.

Aam­nah Hu­sain is a psy­chol­o­gist and par­ent­ing ex­pert for Dubai’s play cen­tre Fun City (, and agrees that im­i­tat­ing su­per­heroes can be a very valu­able ex­er­cise for chil­dren.

‘Through the process they are able to use their imag­i­na­tion and cre­ativ­ity. It can in­tro­duce con­cepts of good and bad, of help­ing the weak and us­ing your strength for good,’ Aam­nah says. ‘Su­per­heroes can be like com­pan­ions and imag­i­nary friends for chil­dren and by act­ing like them they are able to ex­plore the world through their eyes. By imag­in­ing them­selves in the guise of their favourite hero, chil­dren may also feel a de­gree of power and con­trol that they oth­er­wise lack be­cause of their age.’

As with any ac­tiv­ity, Aam­nah says it’s im­por­tant that par­ents use cau­tion and as­sess how su­per­hero play is af­fect­ing their child. She sug­gests look­ing at your child’s favourite su­per­heroes and check­ing that their val­ues are in line with the ones you wish to teach your kids. ‘At times su­per­heroes can treat women in a deroga­tory man­ner, or they may have great wealth,’ she ex­plains.

‘Chil­dren could as­sume th­ese are pre­req­ui­sites for be­ing a su­per­hero so you may want to re­di­rect their at­ten­tion to the bet­ter as­pects of their na­ture. And al­ways en­sure that your chil­dren’s view­ing age is ap­pro­pri­ate.’ And don’t worry about su­per­heroes teach­ing your chil­dren that vi­o­lence is good. Dr Scar­let says re­search stud­ies have so far shown that con­nect­ing with a fic­tional char­ac­ter like Bat­man, Su­per­man or Harry Pot­ter ac­tu­ally re­duces the risk of vi­o­lence and is more likely to make kids more com­pas­sion­ate.

‘When we hear about the suf­fer­ing of an­other char­ac­ter, the em­pa­thy cen­tres of our brain re­act, mak­ing it more likely that we’ll re­spond with kind­ness to peo­ple in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion in real life,’ Dr Scar­let ex­plains. ‘While bul­ly­ing and vi­o­lence can hap­pen any­where at any time, it seems that iden­ti­fy­ing with a fic­tional hero is more likely to re­duce vi­o­lence than to in­crease it.’

Dr Scar­let says su­per­heroes are im­por­tant to us even as we grow into adults. ‘They give us a sense of pur­pose and they re­mind us of what our val­ues are, what we stand for,’ she ex­plains. ‘We know through nu­mer­ous re­search stud­ies that peo­ple with a strong sense of pur­pose, peo­ple who hon­our their val­ues are less likely to de­velop a men­tal health dis­or­der and are more likely to over­come anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion, and PTSD. There­fore, I think that by inspiring us to be­come the very best ver­sions of our­selves, su­per­heroes are es­sen­tially teach­ing us to be more re­silient.’ So just what life lessons can chil­dren learn from the su­per­heroes they idolise?


Su­per­heroes don’t al­ways have it easy. Bat­man’s par­ents were mur­dered,

Con­trary to popular be­lief, en­gag­ing in the imag­i­nary world of su­per­heroes does not pro­mote vi­o­lence, and in­stead re­duces the risk

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